'Of Gods and Men'—- A Movie for the Post-bin Laden Era

If you have not had a chance to see “Of Gods and Men,” the winner of all sorts of film prizes, including the Grand Prix at Cannes, you should drop everything and watch it, and all the more so when Osama bin Laden has just been murdered.  Yes, I said murdered.  When an unarmed civilian, criminal or not,  is killed rather than captured, that would be murder.  Yes I realize he is responsible for many many murders.  Yes I realize that there is some justice in what happened to him.   But before you decide how a Christian should feel about all that,  I urge you to see this movie, a movie about French monks who decided to stay in the face of the Mujahadeen uprising and continue to serve the people of their village.

Let me set the scene for you. Here is the official precis —–  “Eight French Christian monks live in harmony with their Muslim brothers in a monastery perched in the mountains of North Africa in the 1990s. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps though the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Should they leave? Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay… come what may. This film is loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, from 1993 until their kidnapping in 1996.”

This movie is so rich and thought provoking it really requires multiple viewing.  In an era of increasingly superficial, trivial, bland and bad films that try and compensate for their short-comings by revved up CG or 3D technology,  it is refreshing to see a film like this  which is so profoundly thought provoking, especially for Christians.  Were these monks ‘fools for Christ, were they wise to stay and support their villagers who needed their medical treatment and help in so many ways, should they have fled?  What was the appropriate Christian response, or were there several possible ones?    Very few Christians seek of martyrdom like Ignatius of Antioch did.    They do not long for it,  but as Bonhoeffer said last century— ‘When Christ calls a person, he bids him come in die’.  In principle dying to self and living for Christ, or taking up a cross, and being willing to be nailed on it,  comes with the territory of being a serious committed Christian person.   One doesn’t have to have a death or a lust for the fame of martyrdom to realize this is part of the covenant with God.

There are many moving scenes in this movie, not the least of which is simply watching the simple, clean, wholesome, good life in the monastery,  working with hands,  tending the sick, feeding the hungry,  singing the mass,  praying with each other, loving the brotherly fellowship, living simply.   The story is simple, genuine, true, and profound all at once.  We see the monks with their shortcomings and strengths.  We see the crisis of faith for one or two when they realize they may genuinely face death.   And we would not know this tale at all, were it not for the fact that two of the monks escaped notice of their captors who took them to exchange them as prisoners for some of their captive fellow Mujahadeen.  One of them is remarkably still alive to tell the tale, and one of the survivors died in 2008.

The cast of this movie is remarkable and very believable. One or two of the actors you may recognize, for instance the one who plays Luc the monk with doctoring skills is Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson plays the head monk  Brother Christian.  No one knows how they will react in the face of imminent and violent death until they actually are placed in that spot.  And so we see the struggle these monks have in deciding whether to stay or to leave before all Hades breaks loose.   It is interesting that the villagers said ‘we are the little birds and you are the tree holding us up’   whilst one of the monks said  ‘the good shepherd does not leave his flock and flee in the face of the hungry wolves’.   But there are not just the life and death dialogues,  there are many light and touching  scenes as well.    Here is a trailer to check out

YouTube Preview Image

The movie is two hours long, but in some ways it seems so much longer.  This is because of its deliberately slow, steady cumulative pace. Unlike many contemporary films, the director is sensitive to the fact that the subject matter of this film is in many ways non-violence, and so he does not seek to glorify violence, or frankly even to give it the time of day— you do not watch anyone being shot in this film,  though there are some of the dead shown after the fact.  It is such a refreshing change.

I must say I love the interaction in this film not only between the brothers themselves who clearly love and support one another and are all joyful Christians who love to sing God’s praises,  but between them and their Muslim villagers who equally love the brothers and respect them, and came to dependent on them.    In a world that mistakes meekness for weakness, and nonviolence for lack of nerve and bravery,  this film gives the lie to all such thoughts and misapprehensions about Christianity.   Which takes more strength of character, to stare down an assassin until he stands down with no weapons in one’s hands but love and faith and hope and prayer, and a few good words,  or to face them armed to the teeth?  I say it takes much more courage to do the former.   What looks like foolhardiness to the world,  is simply being prepared to be a fool for Christ and not defile one’s witness to the Prince of Peace by taking someone else’s life.

I urge you, if you only see one film this year,  let this be the one, and ask yourself if you could have been one of these monks, ask yourself if you have enough Christian faith to do what they did,  ask yourself if you believe what John Donne said “‘any man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of mankind, therefore do not seek to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”  And if that is true,  then Osama bin Laden,  for whom Christ also died,  is not a person whose death we should be celebrating.    We may feel relief,  we may feel justice has been done,  but we should also realize that we have failed, failed miserably,  in our mission to convince even our enemies with our lives and words and deeds that Jesus Christ is Lord and the Prince of Peace.   “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge…but leave room for God’s wrath…On the contrary ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Rom. 12.17ff.).

  • Karen

    Amen! I look forward to watching the movie.

  • Lilda Burnham

    Yes, Amen! Thank you so much for your courage and Theology.

    Lilda Burnham

  • David Barnhart

    Yes, I also had a reservation. However, Is a distinction to be made between current national policy and decisions made by any country? Or can a justification from Scripture be seen where Ehud, the left-handed judge, being raised up by Yahweh for “deliverance” of Israel, had a message for Eglon in Judges 3:12-31, which included assassination! Result: the land had rest for 80 years. Israel had done evil; the U.S. does evil and suffers consequences. Romans 13:4 indicates the “sword” not being borne “purposelessly.” Maybe the Lord intends that evaluation be made on the basis of His purpose for either nation at any time, as His providence oversees. We probably shouldn’t compare our country with Israel, however–may be too much of a stretch. Since Eden’s abandonment, we are faced with limited decision-making.

  • James Mace

    Thanks for informing me of this film! It recalls teh story of a man influential on my path to Christ. I was driving across the Sahara reading “Lord of the Rings” for the 1st time and made a pilgrimage up to the southern Algerian mountaintop hermitage du Pere Charles de Foucauld, a French nobleman who abandoned his worldly riches to minister to the feudal Touareg tribesmen and ended assassinated by international Islamic jihadists in 1916.

    His example of sacrificial service was a great example of the reality of the Christian faith in this man’s life and helped me come to Christ 3 years later in NZ-Australia. I pray this film makes a similar impact on the hearts of the viewers re the reality of Christ as the Lord of these men’s lives and Who can be their Lord too (although I dissociate willingness to suffer from pacifism.) Thanks for another informative and thoughtful posting!

  • http://soulthoughts.com Nils

    Thanks for letting us know about this Ben. I intend to watch the movie, and I agree totally with what you have said about the death of Bin Laden. Many more Christians need to be saying this.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    David there is no analogy between theocratic Israel and modern America. America is not a theocracy, nor is it led by theocratic judges dedicated to doing Yahweh’s will. So the analogy does not work at all.


  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    I highly discourage anyone from watching it on Youtube! Find the movie by other means and watch it without the multiple posts, poor picture quality and lousy sound. I rented it from Netflix and watched it in one sitting, alone in my living room, and cried! It was a profound experience, so do not cheat yourselves.

    I did my own review at http://oscarsflickpicks.com/?p=5054 last month when it came available to rent. I have been trying to convince friends to sit with me through another viewing but, it seems, people just don’t want to face this subject.

    On bin Laden, I could not rejoice in his death, but Jesus DID say they that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword”. Governments do what governments do, even when we do not agree with them. They are not part of the Kingdom of God, neither do they serve the Prince of Peace.

    When violence is sown it should come as no surprise when it is also reaped. Was it wrong to have assassinated OBL? As much as I would have liked to see him dead I could not have given the order myself, and neither should any Christian. Was it justice? In a worldly way, yes. OBL had his opportunity for salvation and, as far as we know, did not take it. His soul is now in God’s hands.

  • Dennis

    “When an unarmed civilian, criminal or not, is killed rather than captured, that would be murder.”

    Is this statement true as a matter of law? In many state jurisdictions, any person who enters a home without permission, whether armed or unarmed, has by definition performed a hostile act that a reasonable person can conclude would lead to serious injury resulting in death (the “Castle Doctrine”). Further, there is no requirement in many jurisdictions, that a homeowner has to retreat in the face of an intrusion(“Stand Your Ground” doctrine). A homeowner, faced with an intruder who poses a reasonable threat of serious injury resulting in death, can use deadly force, whether the intruder is armed or not.

    I am 58 and have joint problems. An unarmed, 200 pound-intruder does not need a weapon for me to reasonably assume he means to do me great bodily harm. In my state, I have no legal obligation to get him to surrender nicely. I have the legal right to use deadly force. So, no, it is not true that killing an unarmed person is always murder.

    Secondly, is it correct to call the late Bin Laden a “civilian?” He was the head of an organized army not representing a state, but an ideology. He lead an organization that was armed, had ranks and military organization, and attacked both military and civilian targets. Importantly, he declared war according to the formal provisions of his culture. That it is difficult to know where to assign such a person in the framework of the Geneva Convention and our historic understanding of war is one matter. It is another to say that he was, without qualification, a civilian.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Witherington,

    Osama Bin laden was rushing his attackers when he was gunned down. Subsequently he was found unarmed, but they did not know that for sure.

  • James

    Since when is it the mission of the United States to convince anyone that Jesus is Lord? Is there now a religious test of office? Has the prohibition against establishment been rescinded?

    And how could the Seals who broke in Osama bin Laden have known that he was unarmed? Do we know that he made it apparent he was not a threat to them? Was he not known to be the commander of a private army bent on killing as many Americans as it could?

  • Aaron Meares

    I agree that we should not be celebrating bin Laden’s death. However, when you say “we should also realize that we have failed, failed miserably, in our mission to convince even our enemies with our lives and words and deeds that Jesus Christ is Lord and the Prince of Peace” who do you mean by “we”? Who has failed to convince? Christians? The United States of America? It is hard to tell exactly who you are criticizing here.
    You quote “do not take revenge…but leave room for God’s wrath” from Romans 12. But what about a few verses later in Romans 13: “for [a ruler] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4 ESV).
    If your critique is against the United States of America, then are you assuming that the USA is a Christian nation?

  • Nathan

    “When an unarmed civilian, criminal or not, is killed rather than captured, that would be murder.”

    Dr. Witherington, Bin Laden may have been unarmed but he most certainly was not a civilian. He committed an act of war against the United States and is responsible for the deaths of several thousand innocent people. Doing that would make anyone a legitimate target. Additionally, as Dennis said above, the fact that he represented Al-Qaeda rather than a nation-state does not make him a “civilian.” The SEALs were fully within their rights to pull the trigger in that situation. Furthermore, Bin Laden had ducked back into his bedroom after seeing the SEALs, presumably going for the AK-47 and/or pistol found in his room after the raid; it’s not like this guy had any intention of surrendering. The U.S. operation was not a law-enforcing procedure, it was a military action, therefore it isn’t always possible to arrest the enemy when they’re trying to kill you. Sometimes, you have to shoot first, and that’s exactly what the SEALs did.

  • Rick

    Governments bear the sword at God’s direction. Presumably the sword is not purely ceremonial. I still see no reason to believe that Christians should be too squeamish to carry out God-ordained tasks to protect the innocent and punish the wrongdoer. If your motivation is simply to lash out at someone who has inflicted pain on you well, then, you are (I’d argue) clearly outside the bounds of Christian behavior. If you’re retaliating in order to deter further injuries or to protect someone else or to punish the wrongdoer — particularly if you are not merely doing so on your own behalf — I would say you are not only behaving in a Christian fashion, but are performing a Christian duty.

    As others have noted, bin Laden was not a criminal civilian. He was essentially an enemy soldier, and we would have no compunction about bombing an encampment of sleeping soldiers.

  • http://thescreenlounge.com/blog/80 hotshot bald cop

    By no means considered it that way.